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Witness protection program facing new challenges in digital world

The Mounties have made significant changes to the federal Witness Protection Program in recent years. File / Global News

A federal committee tasked with evaluating the RCMP’s witness protection program says the force is “on the right track ” when it comes to keeping witnesses safe, but is facing new challenges in an increasingly digital world.

In their inaugural report, members of the Witness Protection Program Advisory Committee praised the changes made to the WPP over the past several years. They said the RCMP has successfully centralized the program and increased the WPP’s independence by separating it from investigative departments — and from another department designed to protect “human sources” like federal agents whose identities had been revealed.

The WPP has also introduced a psycho-social assessment for protectees, the report says. Mental health professionals and other experts are now being employed to create individual profiles of witnesses that can help the RCMP to shield them more effectively.

The dangers of social media

In one section of the report, the committee — created in 2013 to monitor the WPP  —  touches on new challenges being faced within the program, including the potential pitfalls of an increasingly connected digital world.

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“Emergent and evolving technologies, especially as they relate to increased communication platforms, e.g., internet, social media, etc. have been the subject of discussions between committee members and program personnel,” the report says.

“The added risks they represent to protectees have been recognized and the program has initiated a number of research-based initiatives, some of them grounded on international or external protocols, to address them.”

Importance of ethno-cultural background

As part of the effort to better understand protectees and their circumstances, the committee notes, the WPP needs to focus even more on the ethno-cultural background of each of its charges.

The report also touches on Aboriginal witnesses, revealing that in May, the WPP organized a forum on Aboriginal protection and learning about the specific needs of First Nations protectees. According to the committee, cultural sensitivity training is already part of two of the WPP’s training workshops.

The report, parts of which a have been redacted, provides no advice on specific policies and procedures linked to protecting witnesses. The committee members said that’s because the WPP is still tweaking things, and the committee is relatively new to the job. A fuller evaluation is expected in 2016.

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The WPP’s main task is to protect people who help authorities and who may be placed in danger as a result. The program provides everything from short-term protection to permanent relocation and identity changes.

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